Thrift Store Saints: Tales of a Second-Hand Savior

What I actually know about God might, on a good day, fit on a quarter of the head of a pin compared to the fullness of God's true hugeness.

That said, there are a couple of things about the Almighty that I'm pretty certain are true: God's grace is always staggering and often surprising. And God has a tremendous sense of humor.

Case in point: second-hand socks.

I happened upon this odd epiphany while reading -- inhaling, more accurately -- a simply beautiful (and beautifully funny) new book, Thrift Store Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 cents at a Time, by first-time author Jane Knuth.

Fifteen years ago, Knuth -- a Baby Boomer, cradle Catholic, teacher, wife and mother -- walked into the St. Vincent de Paul Society thrift shop in Kalamazoo, Mich., hoping to purchase a rosary for her daughter's First Communion. When she tried to pay with a credit card, she learned the store only took cash or checks.

"Everybody takes credit cards," she thinks to herself. "McDonalds takes credit cards!"

Knuth complains bitterly about the stores "lousy" hours and the inconvenience to Dorothy, the white-haired saint at the register, who tells her, sweetly:  "Most of our customers don't have credit cards. So it's usually not a problem."

Dorothy's words and subsequent kindness toward not-so-gentle giant who suddenly appears at Knuth's elbow angrily demanding to be given new shoes to wear to church, shocks the author into realizing that she is not standing in a simple thrift store. She's in a sacred place.

Knuth has been volunteering at the St. Vincent de Paul Society store ever since.

Recalling one of her earliest days at the shop, Knuth says: "Those three people standing outside [in the rain] aren't problems to be solved -- they are my teachers. They aren't going to mug me -- they're going to show me the way to God."

The St. Vincent de Paul Society is a worldwide Catholic organization founded in Paris in 1833 with the express purpose of meeting the physical needs of the poor by going to them and offering help.

"Don't make the poor ask for what God, their Father, wants them to have," St. Vincent said. "We should apologize if they have to ask for what they need."

Votaire said that God is a comedian who plays to an audience that is afraid to laugh. Happily for her readers, Knuth isn't afraid to laugh, sharing her God stories in breezy, eloquent prose with ample self-deprecation and great humor.

With that trajectory in mind, Knuth finds herself in many unexpected places and situations where she meets the living and loving God.

There's the story of Knuth going after-hours to meet a client at the big box retail store where she works her second job as a greeter. The woman has no break so Knuth pulls out a pen and fills out the paperwork herself, lobbing questions at the harried single mom who answers dutifully without missing a beat.

"I'm going to need your landlord's name and phone number...the last four digits of your Social Security," Knuth begins.

"Have a nice day! His name is ______ and he lives on ____," the woman answers. (I picture her giving her personal data in a stage whisper while fiddling with the nametag on her uniform vest.) "Have a nice day! And my Social Security number is ______. Need a cart today, miss?"

On another occasion, a nurse from a local hospital calls the thrift shop. There is a patient, an older woman who's recovering from a debilitating illness and being released that day, who has no bed at home. The nurse has a bed to give the patient, but no way to get it to her. Can the Society help?

Knuth and her husband, Dean (a lovely soul), deliver the bedroom set, complete with floral linens, to the ailing woman's home in Kalamazoo's dodgiest neighborhood, meeting drug addicts and would-be thieves along the way. As they leave, the woman tells them she's never had a bed of her own.

In the chapter "Echoes of Christmas," Knuth recounts one Christmas season not to many years ago when sales at the St. Vincent de Paul store have been off and, as a result, the staff is faced with a dilemma: Should they use the limited funds they have to help clients with their rent and utilities or should they continue  the shop's tradition of giving families who request them (sometimes year after year) Christmas gift baskets? Looking at the books, they don't have enough money to do both.

After much soul searching, Knuth and her fellow volunteers decide to step out in faith and do both, even if it looks like it'll take a miracle to do so. They assemble the gift baskets and hand them out. Several large monetary donations arrive at the last minute and the shop ends up having so many toys left over that they give them to a homeless shelter across the street.

As Knuth and the other volunteers are cleaning up a few minutes before closing shop for the holiday, a mother turns up in the shop office crying. She has two young children and is struggling to keep the lights in her home turned on. Three days before Christmas, she was forced to return the kids' gifts to Walmart. She needed the cash. Knuth and her cohorts assemble a sack full of gifts that would have made St. Nicholas proud.

"When Jesus blessed the five loaves and two fish and instructed his friends to share it with the crowd, it still looked like five loaves and two fish," Knuth writes. "They must have felt a bit foolish telling everyone to sit down and dig in. they couldn't have known that the miracle would occur after they gave the food away...Our worrying was such a waste of time."

In her charming book, Knuth indulges neither the twee nor the contrived. Her stories ring true precisely because they are full of the kind of imperfect details that make life what it is. Messy. Surprising. Maddening. Blessed.

Which brings me to second-hand socks.

Tim is a store regular. He's young, fresh-faced and rides his bike everywhere. Knuth first meets Tim the day he's standing at the register trying to decide between purchasing a plastic change purse or a pair of (used) socks. Each item costs 25 cents, but he doesn't have enough on him for both.

Refusing to take the socks with him and pay on his next visit, Tim pedals to his bank and comes back with a quarter.

"Blessed are you who are poor," Knuth writes, recalling one of the Beatitudes, "For the kingdom of God is yours."